10 years after crisis, recovery is uneven; SKorea cruises, RI falls behind

BANGKOK (AP): Ten years ago, a plunge in the Thai baht sparked a wave of recessions across Asia's high-flying economies, bankrupting entire nations, putting millions out of work and shaking markets around the world. Some feared that a decade of growth would be lost.

Today, the region as a whole has bounced back from the 1997-98 crisis and is better equipped to deal with financial emergencies.Banking is more transparent, corporations are better managed, poverty rates have dropped and the region's collective economic growth has doubled.

Still, the recovery has been uneven. The three countries hit hardest by the crisis that began July 2, 1997 - Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea - have charted sharply divergent paths over the last 10 years, reflecting their differing responses tothe crisis and policies since then.

South Korea, which received a humiliating US$58 billion bailout arranged by the International Monetary Fund, quickly cleaned up its banking system and started reforming its heavily indebted family-owned conglomerates. The economy shrank and the jobless rate soared, but by 1999 it was robustly growing again.

The crisis, while painful, forced South Korea to make changes that paved the way for more stable long-term growth. Today, it is one of Asia's powerhouses, led by Samsung Electronics Co. - the world's biggest memory chip maker - and Hyundai Motor Co.

Indonesia, however, continues to struggle. The crisis helped bring about the downfall of former president Soeharto and greater political freedom, but the economy remains beset by rampant corruption, a weak legal system and lackluster foreigninvestment. Economic growth has been ticking along at about 5.5 percent the last two years, but unemployment is rising.

Thailand hovers somewhere in between. Bangkok, where hundreds of skyscrapers froze in mid-construction when the crisis erupted, now has an elevated Skytrain, a subway, a brand new airport anddozens of glitzy malls. Japanese investment has made Thailand a major auto and electronics exporting hub.

But a rise in the baht and political uncertainty caused by a tainted election in 2006 and military coup last September has been a drag on growth. (**)
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